Music to Soothe the Savage Snake Plant
March 25, 2019 8:36 AM   Subscribe

Perhaps the craziest claim of the book was that plants also dug music. And whether you purchased a snake plant, asparagus fern, peace lily, or what have you from Mother Earth on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles (or bought a Simmons mattress from Sears), you also took home Plantasia, an album recorded especially for them. Subtitled “warm earth music for plants…and the people that love them,” it was full of bucolic, charming, stoner-friendly, decidedly unscientific tunes enacted on the new-fangled device called the Moog. Plants date back from the dawn of time, but apparently they loved the Moog, never mind that the synthesizer had been on the market for just a few years. Most of all, the plants loved the ditties made by composer Mort Garson.

The full album description from Bandcamp, because it can be hard to find:

In the mid-1970s, a force of nature swept across the continental United States, cutting across all strata of race and class, rooting in our minds, our homes, our culture. It wasn’t The Exorcist, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, or even bell-bottoms, but instead a book called The Secret Life of Plants. The work of occultist/former OSS agent Peter Tompkins and former CIA agent/dowsing enthusiast Christopher Bird, the books shot up the bestseller charts and spread like kudzu across the landscape, becoming a phenomenon. Seemingly overnight, the indoor plant business was in full bloom and photosynthetic eukaryotes of every genus were hanging off walls, lording over bookshelves, and basking on sunny window ledges. The science behind Secret Life was specious: plants can hear our prayers, they’re lie detectors, they’re telepathic, able to predict natural disasters and receive signals from distant galaxies. But that didn’t stop millions from buying and nurturing their new plants.

Perhaps the craziest claim of the book was that plants also dug music. And whether you purchased a snake plant, asparagus fern, peace lily, or what have you from Mother Earth on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles (or bought a Simmons mattress from Sears), you also took home Plantasia, an album recorded especially for them. Subtitled “warm earth music for plants…and the people that love them,” it was full of bucolic, charming, stoner-friendly, decidedly unscientific tunes enacted on the new-fangled device called the Moog. Plants date back from the dawn of time, but apparently they loved the Moog, never mind that the synthesizer had been on the market for just a few years. Most of all, the plants loved the ditties made by composer Mort Garson.

Few characters in early electronic music can be both fearless pioneers and cheesy trend-chasers, but Garson embraced both extremes, and has been unheralded as a result. When one writer rhetorically asked: “How was Garson’s music so ubiquitous while the man remained so under the radar?” the answer was simple. Well before Brian Eno did it, Garson was making discreet music, both the man and his music as inconspicuous as a Chlorophytum comosum. Julliard-educated and active as a session player in the post-war era, Garson wrote lounge hits, scored plush arrangements for Doris Day, and garlanded weeping countrypolitan strings around Glen Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” He could render the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel alike into easy listening and also dreamed up his own ditties. “An idear” as Garson himself would drawl it out. “I live with it, I walk it, I sing it.”

But as his daughter Day Darmet recalls: “When my dad found the synthesizer, he realized he didn’t want to do pop music anymore.” Garson encountered Robert Moog and his new device at the Audio Engineering Society’s West Coast convention in 1967 and immediately began tinkering with the device. With the Moog, those idears could be transformed. “He constantly had a song he was humming,” Darmet says. “At the table he was constantly tapping.” Which is to say that Mort pulled his melodies out of thin air, just like any household plant would.
The Plantae kingdom grew to its height by 1976, from DC Comics’ mossy superhero Swamp Thing to Stevie Wonder’s own herbal meditation, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. Nefarious manifestations of human-plant interaction also abounded, be it the grotesque pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the pothead paranoia of the US Government spraying Mexican marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat (which led to the rise in homegrown pot by the 1980s). And then there’s the warm, leafy embrace of Plantasia itself.

“My mom had a lot of plants,” Darmet says. “She didn’t believe in organized religion, she believed the earth was the best thing in the whole world. Whatever created us was incredible.” And she also knew when her husband had a good song, shouting from another room when she heard him humming a good idear. Novel as it might seem, Plantasia is simply full of good tunes.

Garson may have given the album away to new plant and bed owners, but a decade later a new generation could hear his music in another surreptitious way. Millions of kids bought The Legend of Zelda for their Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1986 and one distinct 8-bit tune bears more than a passing resemblance to album highlight “Concerto for Philodendron and Pothos.” Garson was never properly credited for it, but he nevertheless subliminally slipped into a new generations’ head, helping kids and plants alike grow.

Hearing Plantasia in the 21st century, it seems less an ode to our photosynthesizing friends by Garson and more an homage to his wife, the one with the green thumb that made everything flower around him. “My dad would be totally pleased to know that people are really interested in this music that had no popularity at the time,” Darmet says of Plantasia’s new renaissance. “He would be fascinated by the fact that people are finally understanding and appreciating this part of his musical career that he got no admiration for back then.” Garson seems to be everywhere again, even if he’s not really noticed, just like a houseplant.

-Andy Beta
posted by rebent (17 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I love Mort Garson and, probably like many other Mefites, I owe my introduction to the DnD podcast The Adventure Zone, which uses a track from his amazing occult-influenced, Ataraxia - The Unexplained. I can't recommend enough listening to it in a completely dark room late at night.

If you're a TAZ fan you might want to go look at the title of the track Griffin used, which is a delightful Easter egg all on its own.

Also, the claims of The Secret Life of Plants might all be bunk, but houseplants do other great stuff!
posted by WidgetAlley at 9:04 AM on March 25 [3 favorites]


Stevie Wonder's 'Journey through the Secret Life of Plants' also scored a documentary.
posted by box at 9:08 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


I was just about to say something about the TAZ connection! Somebody made a music video to go with "Deja Vu" which is perfect for your Halloween party background-video playlist needs.
posted by Strange Interlude at 9:10 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


zomg that album cover. How much more 70's can you get? None. None more 70's.
posted by thelonius at 9:20 AM on March 25 [1 favorite]


It just became available on Spotify (in Canada, at least), which is a godsend because I have put up with a crappy vinyl rip for years now. While my mother let me take any records I wanted when I moved out eons ago, I wasn't able to find the copy of Plantasia I bought her for mother's day ~1978.
posted by PatchesPal at 9:36 AM on March 25 [4 favorites]


I love it. But I cant tell how my succulents feel about it...
posted by Dillionaire at 9:57 AM on March 25


> The work of occultist/former OSS agent Peter Tompkins and former CIA agent/dowsing enthusiast Christopher Bird

Now I wanna go digging in some of the various piles of Old Secret Documents out there and see if I can find their papers. The assorted secret services sure got up to some weird stuff, and "plants can hear our prayers, they’re lie detectors, they’re telepathic, able to predict natural disasters and receive signals from distant galaxies" sure is in line with that.
posted by egypturnash at 10:06 AM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Few characters in early electronic music can be both fearless pioneers and cheesy trend-chasers ...

Dunno, I feel like this characterizes the work of many of the early electronic musicians, usually to their credit.
"The work of occultist/former OSS agent Peter Tompkins and former CIA agent/dowsing enthusiast Christopher Bird, the books shot up the bestseller charts ..."
Tompkins was part of the circle that included occultist engineer Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard. I'm pretty sure there was a copy of The Secret Life of Plants in my house when I was growing up because I remember being fascinated by the idea that plants might have a secret life.

Penny Rimbaud tho, has the take on the secret life of plants—"You've got to talk to your plants? Well, that's bloody nonsense. Because the plants know precisely what you're thinking ... so there's absolutely no point ... there's no need to talk to them. You know, you can't fool a plant."
posted by octobersurprise at 10:20 AM on March 25 [5 favorites]


Of course you can fool plants. A little artificial light, a little chemically-disinfected water, a bit of chemical fertilizer, and they think they're outside. They'll even bloom to attract pollinators that aren't there, is how dumb they are.

And you'd be astounded by some of their political opinions. "Low-information voter" doesn't even begin to cover it.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 10:50 AM on March 25 [6 favorites]


Check out this amazing commercial made for Plantasia*.
(* in 2018)
posted by SaltySalticid at 12:37 PM on March 25


My grandmother had a copy of Plantasia and played it in a gigantic wooden console with a radio/8-track/turntable. "The plants like it."
posted by ActingTheGoat at 1:33 PM on March 25 [3 favorites]


TAZ connection #2: one of the song from the finale is a COVER OF PLANTASIA (which I had always assumed was a video game thing, but no of course it's a thematic echo of the original theme song. what the hell Griffin?)
posted by epersonae at 1:44 PM on March 25


Once a year at Disney World they should play this in lieu of the Main Street Electrical Parade music and have giant triffids walking around.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:48 PM on March 25 [2 favorites]


Mort! I found a bunch of his music on some vinyl music blog a while ago, and it turns out this is actually in my iTunes library! Along with Electronic Hair Pieces, Ataraxia The Unexplained, Black Mass - Lucifer, and Music For Sensuous Lovers. He sort of fits in with my Vangelis / Synergy (Larry Fast) interests. I'll have to give them another listen sometime. Thanks for the post!
posted by hippybear at 6:32 PM on March 25


By sheer coincidence(?), today I got a Discogs email alert that Plantasia is being reissued on vinyl/cassette/CD by Sacred Bones Records in June.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:48 PM on March 25


"Of course you can fool plants. A little artificial light, a little chemically-disinfected water, a bit of chemical fertilizer, and they think they're outside. They'll even bloom to attract pollinators that aren't there, is how dumb they are. "

It might interest you to know this was their plan all along. Millions of years of having to rough it up in the wilds, literally halfway buried in filthy soil, trod on, pecked at by pests... the ages of suffering lead plants to formulate a plan to make a better life for themselves. The most clever plants schemed to make themselves desirable to one of the ground-trodding beasts. That work pays off when a seed sprouts in comforting advanced natural/""artificial"" light in a temperature controlled bath of perfect nutrients.

Think of what a delight it must be for a plant to be able to bloom, relaxed and joyous, instead of being desperate and anxious to attract tiny monsters so their family line won't die out.
posted by GoblinHoney at 7:57 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


I really needed to read this article against the concept of 'overwatering', which I came across when I followed the snake plant link. Thank you for making this post, rebent!
posted by Junker George at 12:19 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


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